25th February

Scottish Literary Connections

Some stories are so good that they deserve repeating in every generation. This one I have stolen, shamelessly, from the folklorist Robert Ford’s book Thistledown, published in 1891. It concerns Henry Mackenzie, author of The Man of Feeling, a novel which Robert Burns said he prized ‘next to the Bible’. It was Mackenzie who used the misleading phrase ‘this Heaven-taught ploughman’ in a review of Burns’s first volume, the Kilmarnock edition of 1786, and thus helped to secure the poet’s reputation among the Edinburgh literati, who were stirred to their stockinged soles by the notion of rustic genius coming among them from the far reaches of Ayrshire.

Years later, in 1814, Walter Scott dedicated his first novel, Waverley, to Mackenzie, calling him ‘our Scottish Addison’. Mackenzie’s famously sen- timental novel was published in 1771, the year of Scott’s birth, and though twenty-five years separated the two writers Mackenzie would predecease Scott by little more than eighteen months. In old age Mackenzie was described by Henry Cockburn as ‘thin, shrivelled and yellow, kiln-dried, with something, when seen in profile, of the clever, wicked look of Voltaire’. Now that’s a description worth reproducing, accurate or not. And so is this story, as related by Ford.

In houses of quality, as late as the end of the eighteenth century, it was the custom to keep a sort of household officer, whose duty it was to prevent drunk guests from choking. Mackenzie was once at a festival at Kilravock Castle (home of his cousin Mrs Elizabeth Rose) in Nairnshire, towards the close of which the exhausted topers sank gradually back and down on their chairs, till little of them was seen above the table but their noses; at last they disappeared altogether and fell on the floor. Those who were too far gone lay still there, from necessity; while those who, like the Man of Feeling, were glad of a pretence for escaping, fell into a doze from policy. While Mackenzie was in this state he was alarmed to feel a hand working about his throat, and called out, when a voice whispered, ‘Dinna be feared, sir; it’s me.’ ‘And who are you?’ ‘I’m the lad that lowses the graavats.’*

* loosens the neckties (Scots)

Reader: James Robertson
Fiddle: Aidan O'Rourke
Piano: Kit Downes
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